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Angry Birds go to school

Veena Venugopal | Updated on December 05, 2014

BLink_Angry Bird in class.jpg

The mobile game’s Finnish maker is bringing educational aids to classrooms around the world

The Angry Birds are coming to school. It’s not surprising, considering the second largest market on the planet is education (food is first), that the maker of the addictive mobile game is looking to enter classrooms across the world. Following four years of R&D, Finland-based Rovio has started rolling out its educational products in China and Brazil. In two years, it expects this vertical to be its largest revenue generator.

“It all started when we hired some people from the publishing industry who had worked on educational books. We realised that some of our characters really engage people, and engagement is the key to education,” Peter Vesterbacka, who holds the puzzling designation of Rovio’s Mighty Eagle, said on the sidelines of the Open Innovations Conference in Moscow. Open Innovations is one of Russia’s largest technology events, hosting participants from across continents.

A Rovio team went around the world studying school education. In Finland, schooldays are short and kids hardly get homework. Yet, it’s one of the most successful systems in the world. Countries like Korea, Japan and China too have impressive education standards but kids spend 10-12 hours on schoolwork. “Our approach was to not go the Tiger Mom way. In the Asian model, kids deliver results but it comes at a high cost. We want to make learning fun, an addiction in fact,” Vesterbacka says. So the base of the Rovio model is the Finnish system. To that, they added what they learned through collaborations with leading institutions to come up with their Rovio pedagogy. The popular Angry Birds characters will appear in some lessons — “where they add value” — but don’t form the core of the narrative.

The base philosophy of Rovio’s education business is to not disconnect students from their worlds. Urban kids begin playing games on smartphones and iPads at an early age. Then they go to school, where they are asked to switch off these gadgets and pay attention to the voice of one teacher. It is inevitable that they enjoy it less and absorb even less. In Finland, research showed that boys spoke better English than girls because they played more video games, which were in English. The company’s philosophy then became one of achieving accidental learning — learning while not realising you’re being taught.

Rovio’s educational products are currently made for the early learning category — preschoolers and kids aged three to six; it will build on these products for kids of all ages. The company is partnering with some world-class organisations, including NASA, for its space modules, CERN for interesting ways of teaching physics, especially particle physics, and National Geographic.

Interestingly, last year 47 per cent of Rovio’s revenues came from the sale of physical products — Angry Birds soft toys and such like. The education business too isn’t reliant entirely on technology. “We have built our education system in such a way that we can deploy it even when it’s not digital. So we can go to Africa — to a village that does not have electricity — and still be able to teach kids using these products. That’s not the best way of doing it. But it’s important not to get carried away by technology,” Vesterbacka says.

This is not Rovio’s first brush with children. Last year, they ran Code Week in the US. Using characters from games, Vesterbacka says, they introduced 30 million kids to coding in a week. This year, they extended the programme to the European Union. Soon, it plans to add India, Russia and China to the list.

In India, too, small and large companies focused on improving education have sprung up in the last few years. The Indian market is massive in size — consulting firm Technopak pegs educational software and other expertise providers to be a $15-billion market with potential to grow 15 per cent CAGR. It pinpoints mobile devices, digital content and learning devices as the most promising technologies in the Indian context. Unsurprisingly, the number of players and interested venture capital investors is high. In fact, the latest entrant is rumoured to be Nandan Nilekani, whose Ek Step venture is expected to be announced next month.

(The writer visited Open Innovations at the invitation of Moscow Convention Bureau)

Published on December 05, 2014

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